Edmonton youth worker tweets about at-risk teens

Youth worker Mark Cherrington uses Twitter to document the experiences of the youth he works with, often using graphic descriptions and photos. But is it advocacy or exploitation?

Mark Cherrington's Twitter posts about marginalized youth cause stir

Picture and text from Mark Cherrington's Twitter feed. "Dear @UN @MikeLakeMP #Aborignal". (Mark Cherrington)

Drug abuse. Prostitution. Homelessness. Poverty.

If you scroll through the Twitter feed of Edmonton youth worker Mark Cherrington, this is what you see.

Cherrington has been a youth worker for Legal Aid Alberta for 20 years. A year and a half ago he started tweeting about his work.

As an advocate for youth, he says Twitter is another tool in his toolbox.

Cherrington posts are hard to ignore.They often contain graphic descriptions of situations and photos that show the effects of violence, social issues and poverty. 

“I’m just using social media to express a demographic that is very marginalized and people don’t understand,” he said.

Cherrington’s gritty tweets have been getting a lot of attention online. And that's the point.

He has nearly 3,500 followers including the Premier of Alberta and the mayor of Edmonton.

“I’m always respectful of young people's confidentiality and their privacy. I’m just the messenger boy and lots of times they’re asking me to send the message.” 
Picture and text from Mark Cherrington's Twitter feed. "Dear @UN @MikeLakeMP #Aborignal". (Mark Cherrignton)

Cherrington says over 80 per cent of the youth he works with are aboriginal.

In Alberta, the incidence of poverty among aboriginal children is 41 per cent, relative to the Alberta overall figure of 17 per cent.

“If you go back to my tweet last [month] I was at Hobbema reserve where a girl had to jump out the bathroom window,” said Cherrington.

Cherrington officially clocks out at 5 p.m., but he volunteers his services after hours. The night before our interview, he was woken up by a phone call in the middle of the night.

"She was a child and she was stuck at a john’s house. She was trapped in a john's house, and I just had to go," he said. "She wasn't safe."

He added, "The problem is they have no trust with the police, and police have no discretion with warrants. These kids would rather bleed to death than phone the police."

Cherrington’s office is filled with supplies donated by his Twitter followers. He's stocked up on baby formula, diapers and condoms.

During our interview, a young First Nations mother who we can't identify came to his office to pick up diapers for her baby.

“He seems really dedicated to youth and helping youth and we need more people like that in society instead of people giving up on people," she said.

But not everyone is praising Cherrington’s tweets.

Preston Guno is a former youth worker and now the executive coordinator for the Northern and First Nations Child and Family Service Council in British Columbia. He said Cherrington’s tweets aren’t advocacy, they're exploitation. 

From Mark Cherrington's Twitter feed: "Royal Alex Hosp with young person. Compassion & empathy goes a long way. Hosp/I develop a plan. Detox then treatment." (Mark Cherrington)

"[He] is taking some very tragic circumstances, personal stories of hardships from young people and using them to throw it on social media to try and catch people’s attention under the guise of bringing issues forward that society is not aware of," said Guno.

Guno thinks Cherrington could be doing more to help the youth by addressing systemic issues. 

"He can do better in terms of calling strategic meetings, setting up youth to empower themselves to bring these issues forward to the decision makers. There is a lot he can do, but it appears he is looking for the fastest, easiest and most self serving way to bring this forward,” he said.
Edmonton youth worker Mark Cherrington defends his use of Twitter. (Giselle Rosario)

But Cherrington views his work as empowerment.

He said he's "giving a voice and providing a different perspective that you just don’t find in mainstream society — giving an opportunity to lift up the carpet so people can look at the dirt." 

Cherrington isn't sure how long he will stay on Twitter but, for now, he's proud of the work he's doing. 

"It's crossing that barrier, and I’m able to get that message out," he said.


Connie Walker

CBC Reporter

Connie Walker is a reporter in the Investigative Unit at CBC News. Follow her on twitter @connie_walker


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